April concert with Todmorden Choral Society

Sunday 17 April 2016
Daniel Bath

“Perhaps the most Mozartian of all here was the playing of the woodwind section, which shaped their short, delicate phrases with grace.”

Todmorden’s very own symphony orchestra and choir have once again provided the community with something wonderful. Presenting works composed between 1788 and 1816, the height of the classical period, by Antonio Salieri, W.A. Mozart and Luigi Cherubini, this fascinating programme went beyond just the music and transported us back in time to one of the most dramatic periods in the history of Europe. Of course, Mozart is the one we have all heard of (and Salieri only in the context of wholly spurious stories about his collusion in Mozart’s untimely demise), although all three of these composers were celebrated and successful throughout Europe at that time of revolution and war with the beauty of their classical art appealing to our common humanity.

A great choice to open the concert, Salieri’s setting of the psalm, “Confirma Hoc Deus” also featured the work of our resident composer, Tim Benjamin who had arranged the piece for orchestra especially for this concert. Setting the emotional and musical scene for the evening, this performance was full of dramatic contrast and a very well-balanced choral sound. Tim’s richly coloured orchestration showed really community spirit as each section of the orchestra had moments to shine, including a bold bass drum at the start and finish. We were also treated here to superbly spirited solo singing from members of the choir.

There then followed Mozart’s Symphony no. 39, which, whilst not as famous as his last two symphonies, exemplifies the exquisite trickery and skill of his bright musical genius. Throughout this piece, conductor Antony Brannick chose tempi which allowed the music and the players to breathe, bounce and soar through Mozart’s colourful juxtapositions of contrasting emotions. The opening Adagio carried us through a well-paced crescendo to the energetic flights of all the string players in the ensuing Allegro. Perhaps the most Mozartian of all here was the playing of the woodwind section, which shaped their short, delicate phrases with grace. The two middle movements of the symphony provided more delights from the woodwind section, with some very well controlled solo playing from all in turn, especially the clarinet in the folk-like trio. Antony kept the pace of the final allegro movement firmly in his grasp, letting the real Mozart in all these complex textures, dialogues, counterpoint and Viennese fun come to the fore.

Cherubini’s Requiem in C minor, which formed the second half of the concert, is a surprisingly sober piece for someone who made his career writing for the Paris Opera. It spoke so aptly to the grief of Europeans living in the wake of the Napoleonic wars that it was chosen for the funeral of Beethoven. A wonderful choice of work for our choir and orchestra, this Requiem features no professional solo singing, throwing the spotlight on the ability of our big choir to blend with such care as to sing with one voice. This gave a powerful message of solidarity and redemption.

Our orchestra navigated the dramatic crescendos and diminuendos of the opening section with great balance and skill and their sensitivity allowed the richness of the low-register choral chords to resonate. The absence of violin parts in the first two sections gave the lower strings a chance to demonstrate the warmth and expression of their playing. This made the impact of the “Dies Irae”, judgement day music all the more dramatic as the violins entered with devilish panache, coupled with the choir’s spitting sibilants – a brilliantly memorable moment of real commitment by the performers.

There were several passages of unison singing and unison orchestral playing whose togetherness in intonation and phrasing was magical and drew the audience into the honest humanity of this music. Finally, after the deftly navigated chromatic complexities of the latter sections of the Requiem, the melody of the choir was reduced to one, repeated low note, sustained with Zen-like focus, which together with ethereal orchestral playing brought us to a sound world of the music of the future. A remarkable ending to a remarkable evening.